Portrait of a Wife

Normally, one touch was all it took for Aaron. Even an accidental finger brush on his arm sent electricity coursing through his body and activating hormones that effectively shut down his higher brain functions and picked the lock on the cage of his animal self. But that wasn’t the case with Sarah. Oh, she was beautiful, to be sure, just his type physically, but like the wrong puzzle pieces, they hadn’t connected in the right way, their passion, intensity, and the things that made sex intoxicating, a drug, an escape from reality, just wasn’t there. At least not for him.

All of Sarah’s switches had flicked on from the first time they met and their chemistry was incredible and she was well and truly smitten and on a ride down the road of true love. She was so head over heels that she experimented in sexual activities that she once found sinfully inappropriate and hadn’t minded one bit making the sacrifice.

In the midst of the questionable acts, Sarah let judgment, inhibition, and all the pretense she dressed herself in to conform to societal norms simply fall away. She melted into decadence and let her body express her true feelings in a way her words never could. Aaron made her beg for it at times when she was unable to articulate a response with anything other than throaty moans.

And when they were both spent, and the room was filled with nothing but twilight shadows and their combined scent, Sarah rested her chin on her husband’s chest, examining his face while running her fingers absently through his hair.

“You understand me,” Sarah said. “You see me like no one else in the world. As I truly am. Don’t you feel the same way?”

“Of course, I do,” Aaron locked in on her eyes, careful not to blink or give away the fact that he was lying.

“I think you should paint me, you know, the way you really see me. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”

“Absolutely,” Aaron smiled half-heartedly, brushing a lock of hair from her face.

“Are you just saying that or do you really mean it? Because you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“It’s a great idea, darling.”

“I don’t want to force you.”

“I want to paint you. I should have done it years ago.”

“Really? I feel so close to you right now. Like I don’t know where I end and you begin,” Sarah smiled and leaned in for a kiss.

Aaron should have been concentrating on the kiss but he was aware of the sound of the rain outside, tapping a soft symphony on the window glass. He felt crushed beneath the pressure of her lips and the weight of her stare. The sheer density of her love caused him to sink into the mattress, straining the bedframe until it gave way and shattered, crashing him through the floorboards beneath, into the living room below and down still through the basement.

Sarah, of course, was blissfully unaware of this.

The next morning Aaron awoke to find Sarah gone, but she left a text message on his phone:

Remember, you promised, it read, followed by an emoji he couldn’t quite make heads or tails of without his glasses and an electron microscope.

She meant the painting, of course. The one Aaron never actually promised he would do of her but arguing that point would have revealed him to be the lying, heartless ogre that all men were genetically predisposed to become. So, he placed his current work aside and prepped a brand-new canvas for the masterpiece that would prove his so-called love.

He stretched the canvas, applied the gesso, and gathered all the photos he had of her, the ones in which he thought she looked most beautiful, and… his paintbrush hovered just above the canvas surface. For hours. Until the cramp in his arm forced him to step away.

That night he had a dream that he painted the most beautiful portrait of his wife. It was so wondrous that it brought tears of joy to the eyes of everyone who viewed it. And when he woke up, the memory of the painting was so vividly implanted in his mind that he was sure he could finally paint it.

But the brush hovered again. All day long.

Sarah asked how the portrait was coming along and in a rare moment of complete honesty, Aaron revealed his dream about the painting and his inability to replicate it in real life. Sarah interpreted the dream as his artistic genius pushing him to do his best work ever. She was convinced this was the beginning of a bold new step in his creative process.

A week later, after running a few errands, Aaron returned home and found Sarah sitting at the dinner table, her face tighter than a newly stretched canvas.

“What’s wrong?” Aaron asked.

“I just got off the phone with my mother,” Sarah said. “I’m going to stay with her for a while.”

“My God, did something happen to her? Is she all right?” The concern in Aaron’s voice was genuine. Sarah’s mother was the kindest and friendliest person he had ever met and it was clear that Sarah hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“My mother’s fine,” said Sarah, but her distant eyes were focused on a point far past where Aaron stood.

“Then what’s the matter? And don’t give me that nothing nonsense. I can clearly see that something’s upset you.”

He hadn’t realized that Sarah’s hands were under the table until she lifted them and she was holding one of the preliminary sketches he had drawn for the portrait.

“This is what I look like to you?” Sarah asked.

Aaron let out a relieved chuckle. “Is that what’s bothering you? Honey—”

“It’s not funny!” Sarah crumpled the sketch into a ball and hurled it at him before storming out of the room. He stood there for a long moment, stunned, trying to puzzle out what was happening and the best he could figure was apparently, her vision of the painting far exceeded Aaron’s crude charcoal doodle.

He tried explaining that he was only working out shapes, angles, and compositions but his wife was in such a state of hysterics that he doubted there was anything he could have possibly said to get her to stop packing her travel bag.

As confused as he was at how something so small could have escalated so drastically, the moment Sarah slammed the front door behind her, Aaron felt lighter. The unending weight of her love was being lifted from his shoulders and now he finally had the freedom he desired since the beginning of their marriage. And he intended to enjoy his newfound weightlessness while it lasted because he knew she would return eventually. His wife loved him too much to stay away for long.

But he wasn’t exactly in the clear, either. Because he knew she would eventually return, he was still going to have to produce her portrait and it needed to be the best thing he had ever painted.

After his initial relaxation period, Aaron began losing a sense of time. Hours turned to days turned to weeks turned to months and even seasons, and in all that time, Sarah never once attempted to contact him. Then he began to realize that his weightlessness had transformed into emptiness and he began missing little things about his wife. Her gentle and never mean-spirited teasing about his odd habits. Her witty retorts to his sneaky jibes. The little noises of satisfaction she made while enjoying a meal, a program, or a good book. It was at that moment that he realized he actually loved her for more than just her money, her patronage, he had simply been a fool for looking at it from the wrong angle. And that was the impetus he needed to push through the barrier of artist’s block.

***

A year after the day that Sarah left her husband, she finally returned home, thanks mostly to her mother’s sage advice, but she wasn’t coming back without a fight. In the year she spent away, never once had he tried to contact her, send flowers or apology notes. Now it was her time to make him beg.

But when she opened the front door, she found the house in such a state of disarray that her anger turned into concern. Room after room she searched for Aaron until she finally found his dead body in his studio, surrounded by hundreds of canvases of varying size, littered across the room in various stages of completion. All abandoned. All rejected. All quite not right. His face was hollow, a pale mask of emptiness, and his painting hand was gnarled and twisted from a year of abuse.

Text and audio ©2014-2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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